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September 26, 2004

Canyon wren

At Cima Dome with Becky in 1998, I'd been eyeing Kessler Peak for two days. The great red rock hung over the campsite, its summit 1100 feet above our tent. I'd wanted to climb it each time I'd visited, and Becky finally got tired of hearing me talk about it. "So go."

I went, waving at our neighbors in the next campsite as I passed.

A brushy dry wash sloped gradually upward into a box canyon, black-stained rocks and red-spined barrel cacti and Joshua trees. The sun was at my back. Above, the summit saddle looked very close, and I pushed upward across the red talus.

In about twenty minutes of huffing, sweat dripping off the end of my nose, I made it to the summit. I took a photo or two, enjoyed the wind playing through the wet back of my shirt, gazed for a time at the far off Clark Mountains. (No relation.)

And then it was time to head back downhill.

Mindful of the need to cover new territory whenever possible, I headed toward the canyon just south of the one I'd climbed, but it didn't look descendable. Neither did the next one. I headed back the way I'd come up.

It's easier to climb a talus slope than to descend it. I knew this when I'd started my ascent. But I hadn't counted on this canyon looking, from the top, just as impassible as the two I'd decided against. I started down anyway, my heels slipping out from under me in the loose talus, baseball-sized rocks rolling downhill toward our truck.

The footing was what experienced Grand Canyon hikers refer to as "ball bearings on plywood." I slipped a few times, growing more and more anxious with each misstep. Finally, both feet went out from under me at once, and I skidded about ten feet toward a 40-foot cliff, stopping just at the edge. I watched as the rocks that had been under my feet freefalled onto a large patch of very spiny Joshua trees at the cliff base.

I started shaking, a tremor that went all the way to my toes. A fine panic began to twist its roots into my brainstem, and I began to wonder frankly if I had gotten myself into one of those fatal desert circumstances, like Muir climbing the Minarets or Abbey on that Canyon ledge.

And then the canyon wren sang.

I don't get to hear canyon wrens often, and then only when I'm traveling in wilderness or some close facsimile, hiking the red rock slot canyons of the Colorado Plateau, or the sky islands of the Sonoran Desert. A Pavlovian association has resulted, in which as soon as I hear that cascade of upturned notes I feel as though I am at the precise center of a world of beauty.

That afternoon on Kessler Peak was no exception. My deadly little box canyon was suddenly the most beautiful place in the world. The tremors stopped, and I saw that a rather obvious safe path had somehow opened up through the slippery talus and tangled cholla. The campsite neighbors, who had been watching my descent, said it suddenly looked as though I had strapped on skates.

Posted at September 26, 2004 01:45 PM | TrackBack


The canyon wren's song is without doubt my favorite birdsong on any continent. The nightingale's is lovely because, primarily, it sings at night when nothing else does; the veery's singing with itself is eerie and beautiful. But I doubt whether either one could have gotten you down your slope.

We had a canyon wren that tried to make a nest inside our cabin in Santa Barbara. He sang and peented enthusiastically throughout the shed as he greedily ate spiders. We called him Marcel (as in Proust)... It's almost like a cheery keen boy scout whistle crossed with an opera diva or something.

Posted by: Pica at September 27, 2004 06:34 AM

This post reminded me, oddly, of a book I'd read years ago. Bone Games is about trascendence and Zen (or flow) in extreme sports; that feeling of being somehow not-present (or entirely present!) in what your body is suddenly capable off. It sounds as though the canyon wren tore you out of your own self-consciousness and allowed something more trusting to take over, and while the situation you were in was not quite as extreme as many of the stories in the book, the essential experience sounds the same.

(I'd recommend the title, too . . .)

Posted by: Siona at September 27, 2004 09:09 AM

JEEZ, Chris, first you practically get eaten, then you are sliding down a ball-bearing slope toward cliff edges. I'm glad I got to know you after you got smart...seems you've always been lucky...

Posted by: beth at September 27, 2004 10:06 AM

sometimes we have only to quiet ourselves to find what is already there. you are an adventure a minute - aren't you, my friend.

Posted by: Anne at September 27, 2004 10:42 AM

First Barry Lopez, then you. One of these days I'll have to go back to the canyon country and hear one of these birds myself.

Posted by: Dave at September 27, 2004 11:06 AM

Beth is making a seriously unwarranted assumption about my having "got[ten] smart." I expect to have a few more stories when I get back from AZ in a couple weeks, and then I'll be getting home to a new kayak...

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 27, 2004 11:50 AM

and Siona, Schultheis is a seriously wonderful writer. Thanks for the lead to a title I hadn't seen yet.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 27, 2004 11:53 AM

I've enjoyed poking around your place here.

I had never heard a canyon wren until a rafting trip on the Colorado. Once you hear it echoing off the canyon walls, you never forget it.

Posted by: Trey at September 30, 2004 06:01 AM

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